Playwright: Sentell Harper. At: Mortar Theatre Company at Apollo Theater Studio, 2540 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-935-6100 or www.mortartheatrecompany.org; $15 ($10 for students). Runs through: June 8
Local actors currently in the process of creating a solo performance art piece should measure their efforts against the wowing high bar being set by Sentell Harper in his one-man show Seek and Ye Shall Find. Now being presented by Mortar Theatre after readings at Pegasus Players, Seek and Ye Shall Find continually dazzles with Harper's amazing all-around acting and writing abilities.
Now it must be said that things don't start off promisingly at the intimate Apollo Studio Theater. The recurring din of overhead rumbling CTA Red and Brown Line elevated trains audibly bleeds into the space.
However, Harper makes an asset of the noisy venue by prominently featuring a magical CTA train ride in his script. Those train sounds also tie simply and scenically into the show via set designers Robert S. Kuhn and Michelle Underwood's onstage chairs painted with multicolor CTA map patterns.
And what a comic and poignant ride Harper and director Stephanie Stroud take you on in Seek and Ye Shall Find. Harper's main axe to grind in his show is how his main character feels so disappointed and dispirited with of his fellow peers in Chicago's gay African-American community. So when he gets stranded in a neighborhood populated entirely by gay Black men, Harper's leading man doesn't know if he's being cosmically punished or tested.
Lucky for us, that gives Harper the opportunity to portray a number of different gay Black men, ranging from the hilarious pop-culture obsessed coffee-shop employee "Tom-Tom" (named twice for a reason) to the sage-like older gentleman Willie (who makes a great analogy to modern jazz when evaluating the different approaches Black men take to expressing their homosexuality).
Harper is an astute observer, and his attention to physical and vocal details as he speeds through his many characters is positively astonishing and minutely specific. Though he doesn't change costumes, Harper is capable of letting you know in an instant of which character he's playing simply by a change in vocal inflection or physical stance (the spot-on work of lighting and sound designer Scott Pillsbury is also an invaluable aid to Harper's split-second morphing).
What Harper has to say frequently hits home, with topics including self-loathing, HIV-status bias and racial discrimination within the LGBTQ community. But whenever things get preachy, Harper isn't far behind with great dashes of truthful humor to bring home his characters' points.
Seek and Ye Shall Find is simultaneously critical and celebratory African-American gay males, giving a wonderful insight from one who questions his place in this specific and larger communities. And as far as a solo showcase for Harper, it's a deluxe dramatic and comic vehicle that allows him to constantly shine.